Good Reading for Hard Times

Perhaps you are looking forward to today’s inaugural activities, either with pleasure or as a witness. Perhaps, however, like me, you have been absorbing the news with increasing concern (not to say despair — never despair), and, while you have been making plans for strong action in the coming years, you would like to spend today peacefully away from any source of news, reading something good.

Well, what’s good? Something purely escapist, that will help you forget it all for a few hours? Something uplifting, that will give you hope? Something by an author from a marginalized group, so you can show solidarity and maybe open up your horizons? Something that will remind you that literature and art are here to make connections in our world? I’ve got some suggestions for you!

If You Just Want to Forget Everything For A While:

The Last Werewolf, by Glen Duncan. This novel, narrated by Jake Marlowe, a 201-year-old, whiskey-drinking aesthete of a werewolf, the last of his kind, is breathless, witty, ironic, fast-paced, and fabulous. Look out for purple prose, but it’s well-earned.

11/22/63 , by Stephen King. What if you could go back in time and change the world — but only to one specific spot? This is what happens to Jake Epping, who discovers he can travel back in time, but only to October, 1958. Can he save John Kennedy, and by so doing, save Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, millions in Vietnam? Find out in this great, suspenseful time-travel novel.

Bellwether, by Connie Willis. This is an extremely funny book about fads and chaos theory, luck, work, and inspiration, exasperation, and the way love can bloom in a weird environment. If it doesn’t make you laugh (even today), I’ll be very, very surprised.

Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier. If you’ve only read Rebecca, you’ve only just started. This is a thrilling, sinister Gothic romance in a great tradition, with touches only du Maurier can do right.

High Rising, by Angela Thirkell. Actually, you could read any of Thirkell’s Barsetshire Chronicles and be equally delighted, charmed, and amused, but this is the first one and it’s satisfying to start with.

If You Would Like Something Uplifting For a Change:

Hope in the Dark, by Rebecca Solnit. A book about how action results from and produces hope, even if we don’t know anything about our possible futures.

Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine. This wonderful, immensely readable book on neuropsychology first debunks many old experiments that claimed men were more intelligent or more able than women, then posits that our brains are molded by our environments. If we have a more just society, we will have more just brains. Simple as that, right?

Bird by Bird or Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott. These books (about writing and the first year of having a baby, respectively) revolve around the importance of friendship, faith, love, sobriety, forgiveness, and Cheetos. They are some of my mainstays.

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Even the smallest person can make a difference.

Résistance: A Frenchwoman’s Journal of the War, by Agnès Humbert. This story of fighting back against the Nazi occupation of France will fill you with determination and pride.

If You Would Like to Create Solidarity With Your Reading:

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This letter to Coates’s son, inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (another good selection!) is an indictment, a memoir, and a manifesto.

Americanah, by Chimamandah Ngozi Adichie. This is a book about being an immigrant, about being a NAB (Non-American Black) in a racialized country, about being a woman in a patriarchy — and it’s also about a long relationship, and about the meaning of home.

The Arrival, by Shaun Tan. This wordless book shows you what it means to make a life in a really, really new place.

There but for the, by Ali Smith. This novel is a marvelously strange construction of humor and seriousness, about a man who has been invited to a dinner party by total strangers (it’s implied that he’s there because he’s gay — they like to invite people who are “different.”) In the middle of the party, he goes upstairs, locks himself into the spare room, and won’t… come… out. The way Smith unfolds meaning like a paper flower from this premise is glorious.

All the Single Ladies, by Rebecca Traister. A comprehensive, readable, sensible look at single womanhood in the United States.

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich. This novel begins with a crime — rape and attempted murder — and should feel isolating. But it is about community and shared pain, and the complicated limits of that community. A great choice from a great author.

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson, is in the voice of a woman who has known abandonment and homelessness, poverty, loss, danger, and distance from mainstream, middle-class values all her life. Her deep, intuitive understanding, her reach for words to express her knowledge, and her yearning for love and relationship (even while she is wary of it) make this one of the best books I’ve read in years.


If you are reading today, I wish you peace and contentment. What will you be reading, if anything? What would you add to this list — any of the categories? Would you add a category? If you aren’t reading, what are you doing?

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peacekeeperIt’s often easiest to review books when they stay inside generic boundaries, and the smaller the box, the better. This is a cozy mystery, this is a thriller, this is a western. If you like what goes in this box, you’ll like this, because it goes in the box you like. Books that go in more than one box, or make up new boxes, or ooze outside of boxes altogether, are harder to review, and to recommend, because sometimes the things that make them worth reading are off-putting to people who don’t usually read those sorts of things (if there even is a “sort of thing” like that yet.)

Peacekeeper, by Christopher Bryan, is not quite as mightily genre-bending as all that. It’s mystery, and fantasy. It’s unabashedly Christian, but it doesn’t have the hectoring tone of the Left Behind series; it believes in a literal heaven and hell, but it isn’t about telling a certain segment of the population that they’re going to one place or another. It draws heavily on Charles Williams, on C.S. Lewis, and even on George Macdonald for inspiration, but it’s set in contemporary Britain.

Peacekeeper is the sequel to Siding Star, in which we met D.I. Cecelia Cavaliere and her officers of the peace, as well as her friend, the Anglican vicar Michael Aarons. In Siding Star, they averted a literally apocalyptic scenario through supernatural means, and Peacekeeper picks up just a few months later. The book begins with a murder-robbery that seems unconnected to anything that’s gone before. But this time, the evil Academy has a new plan for ending the world — global nuclear war — and the Detective Inspector learns about it only through her meticulous policing and her willingness to listen to what’s gone seriously wrong in her world.

This book is engaging, fast-paced, and reasonably well-written. There are visions, saints, and demons here, but the main power is that of the human will: apart from a little bit of time travel (Doctor Who fans will get a nod), the only real supernatural intervention is that of ideas. It is human beings — their greed, cowardice, pettiness, and lust for power, or on the other hand, their joy, love, delight, tenderness, humor, and loyalty — that decide what this earth will be. Bryan believes in the physical goodness of the earth, given by God: red wine, good food, sex, sunshine, and perhaps especially animals. Those who reject life, love, and goodness in favor of death, self, and cruelty are rejecting God himself. Bryan may be drawing on Charles Williams, but he doesn’t have his asceticism.

One criticism: Bryan doesn’t just get inspiration from C.S. Lewis, he outright cribs from him. There’s at least one scene and possibly two in this book that are simply taken from Lewis, in their exact outlines and much too precisely in some of their wording. I think Bryan is capable of writing originally; the trap of admiring someone else’s writing so much is a hard one.

There are at least two more books in this series. I have one more (Singularity) on my shelves, and I’ll see when I get to it. These are quick reads! I didn’t announce this at the beginning of January, just because I forgot to, but I’m spending at least this month and maybe February reading from my TBR shelves. They have gotten a little out of control — for me — at 38 books. (Remember that I do 98%+ of my reading from the library, and normally get books only at my birthday and Christmas!) I’m making good progress, so you may see Singularity here soon.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries, Religion, Speculative Fiction | Leave a comment

A Prayer Journal

prayer-journalWhen Flannery O’Connor was a very young woman, just twenty-one, she went to the University of Iowa for a year to participate in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She was a devout Catholic, and during that year or so, she kept a prayer journal in a ruled notebook. This journal has been published. It’s of interest partly because Flannery O’Connor’s stories do so often have to do with her faith, of course, but also because her thoughts on faith so often have to do with her writing.

Most of her prayers (as you would imagine) are very earnest: pleas for grace, supplications for help, requests to love God and her fellow beings more. Some are humorous, smiling at her own earnestness. O’Connor was more self-aware than a lot of twenty-one-year-olds:

I don’t want to be a coward, staying with You because I fear hell. I should reason that if I fear hell, I can be assured of the author of it. But learned people can analyze for me why I fear hell and their implication is that there is no hell. But I believe in hell. Hell seems a great deal more feasible to my weak mind than heaven. No doubt because hell is a more earthly-seeming thing. I can fancy the tortures of the damned but I cannot imagine the disembodied souls hanging in a crystal for all eternity praising God. It is natural that I should not imagine this. If we could accurately map heaven some of our up-&-coming scientists would begin drawing blueprints for its improvement, and the bourgeois would sell guides 10¢ the copy to all over sixty-five. But I do not mean to be clever although I do mean to be clever on 2nd thought and like to be clever & want to be considered so. But the point more specifically here is, I don’t want to fear to be out, I want to love to be in; I don’t want to believe in hell but in heaven.

Even in her private prayers, she couldn’t bear the least hint of cant or sentimentality. It all boiled down to grace, for her.

Many times, she refers to her writing, with a kind of desperate love for it, thoroughly mixed with her love of God:

Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine. Please let the story, dear God, in its revisions, be made too clear for any false & low interpretation because in it, I am not trying to disparage anybody’s religion although when it was coming out, I didn’t know exactly what I was trying to do or what it was going to mean. I don’t know now if it is consistent. Please don’t let me have to scrap the story because it turns out to mean more wrong than right—or any wrong. […]

Oh dear God I want to write a novel, a good novel. I want to do this for a good feeling & for a bad one. The bad one is uppermost. The psychologists say it is the natural one. Let me get away dear God from all things thus “natural.” Help me to get what is more than natural into my work—help me to love & bear with my work on that account. If I have to sweat for it, dear God, let it be as in Your service. I would like to be intelligently holy. I am a presumptuous fool, but maybe the vague thing in me that keeps me in is hope. […]

But how eliminate this picky fish bone kind of way I do things—I want so to love God all the way. At the same time I want all the things that seem opposed to it—I want to be a fine writer. Any success will tend to swell my head—unconsciously even. If I ever do get to be a fine writer, it will not be because I am a fine writer but because God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me. Right at present this does not seem to be His policy. I can’t write a thing. But I’ll continue to try—that is the point.

I find this fascinating, just as a window into O’Connor’s point of view as a beginning writer. Her passion for writing — good writing, fine writing — is consuming. She doesn’t think much of her own intellect (perhaps this is a result of being at the workshop in 1946, which I am presuming was male-dominated in some of the particular ways academia was in those days), but she doesn’t seem to have much doubt that she’s meant to write, and that she wants to do it for motivations that are beyond what psychologists tell her are the “real” ones. As she wrote this journal, she was shaping Wise Blood, and bringing it in to the workshop to be examined.

O’Connor abandoned this journal after 18 months. She had her first attack of lupus — the disease she suffered from all her life, and  that killed her at the age of 39 — three years later. Most of the evidence of what she thought about grace and judgment and mercy (and race and class and a lot of other things) is in her stories and letters, rather than in journals. But if you are interested in a glimpse of the writer O’Connor would become — if you are interested in the way she was thinking as she was forming her ideas on how to write as a Christian for the rest of her life — this brief book (which includes a replica of the original handwritten journal) may interest you.

Posted in Nonfiction, Religion | Leave a comment


runawayI find it difficult to describe the experience of reading the short fiction of Alice Munro. Usually, I like my short stories to be a little bit weird and experimental — to play with form, the way George Saunders does, or to be good satire, or to take place somewhere I’ve never imagined. Alice Munro does none of this. Her stories deal with the complexity of human behavior, both good and bad. Her writing is dry, simple, and faintly witty, and I find that as she gets older, it mostly gets sparer. I’ve read reviewers who say that not much happens in her stories, but actually they’re pretty brightly studded with plot: runaways, suicides, marriages and divorces, decades of child-rearing, a man who institutionalizes his psychic wife when her clairvoyance no longer pays the bills, infidelity, sudden death, travel and homecoming, the kind of phone call none of us would rather receive. There isn’t much space in the stories (though they’re all pretty long — 40 or 50 pages) and so they go deep, instead.

In a lot of Munro’s work, she’s written about younger women. In Runaway, she is creating work that’s more about middle-aged and older women, who hold in themselves the knowledge of having been young. “Powers” is a good example of this. The first section of the story is Nancy’s diary from 1927, a little masterpiece of a young, meddling, self-centered girl. There’s no nostalgia here and no information given: Munro knows that the past wasn’t quaint to the people living in it. Nancy plays a foolish April Fool’s joke on a young doctor and then is too embarrassed to turn down his offer of marriage. Her friend, Tessa, a clairvoyant, is also tangled up in marriage with a young man who is out for his own financial gain. Decades later, and after a horrible “seniors’ cruise,” Nancy bumps into Tessa’s husband. He tells her — at length — the story of his marriage to Tessa, but Nancy knows that his story is a tissue of lies. She feels that she herself is lying by not protesting. The story ends, mysteriously, with a dream: a shared understanding about what women know, but force themselves not to know, in order to live a happy life. The story works wonderfully, with the fractured, nonlinear narrative, and the close examination of what “powers” may mean in a life.

“Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence” are all about the same character, Juliet. In the first, she is a studious young teacher who meets a man on a train and falls in love with him. Later, she impulsively goes to visit him in British Columbia where he is a fisherman, arriving accidentally the day of his wife’s wake. In “Soon,” Juliet is a young mother, home with her parents, showing off her baby, Penelope. In “Silence,” Juliet is a late middle-aged widow whose daughter has cut off relations with her mother. It appears that the independence and sturdy logic we admired in the younger Juliet have alienated Penelope, who has gone in search of the spiritual things she never had at home. One of the really interesting things about this trilogy is that it doesn’t feel like a novel. Each story feels complete and separate, spacious in its own right. They resonate with each other, but are unforced.

There were a couple of stories that felt more heavy-handed to me. The title story is about Carla, who wants to run away from her emotionally abusive husband and is aided to do so by a neighbor. Eventually, however, she can’t imagine her life without him and she’s drawn back home. Her miserable adventure is echoed by a runaway goat, Flora, who is literally the scapegoat in the picture. I mean, this story would teach well, but when the symbolism is this obvious, I find it a little intrusive. I was also almost unable to read “Tricks,” which uses a literally Shakespearean case of mistaken identity as the hinge of the plot. I cannot tell you how I loathe plots that turn on simple misunderstandings (which is why I can’t bear Romeo and Juliet.) However, it’s important to note that these two stories are so jarring in Munro’s work because she usually works with such dogged, almost muted realism. At the beginning of this review, I said I like weird stories. Well, clairvoyance, a fateful goat returning at exactly the right moment, and a case of a deaf-mute twin ought to please me, oughtn’t they? Munro is doing this on purpose, which she proves by calling her story “Tricks.” It’s not the strange Shakespearean coincidence that counts, nor the clairvoyance. It’s the human reaction: the betrayal, the lie, the cowardice, or — on the other hand — the faithful friendship, the enduring love.

If you haven’t read Munro, do. I think you could start anywhere; I started with Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, and this is the fourth book I’ve read of hers. But don’t miss her.

Posted in Fiction, Short Stories/Essays | 6 Comments

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death

sidney-chambers-shadow-of-deathA couple of years ago, I watched the Grantchester mysteries on PBS Masterpiece. I enjoyed them thoroughly (I would enjoy anything with Robson Green in it!) and didn’t think much more about it. But when I discovered that the show was based on a series of books by James Runcie, I thought I would give them a try.

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death is admirably suited for television adaptation. It’s episodic: each chapter is a short, standalone mystery,  but it has the continuity of a novel. The crimes range from theft to art forgery to questionable suicide to outright murder — a lot of variety for a smallish town just outside of Cambridge, you may think, but of course that’s the detective-story tradition, isn’t it?

The title character, Sidney Chambers, is a vicar. He gets mixed up in these crimes in part because one of his closest friends is the local Detective Inspector Geordie Keating: they play backgammon in the pub and share shop talk, and sometimes Keating sends Sidney in to talk to someone who might not open up to a police officer. Sidney is a very appealing character. He’s a reluctant detective, because he thinks he should be devoting himself to his vocation as a priest, but he’s so intelligent and observant that he can hardly help making discoveries. He’s kind and empathetic, and respects the privacy of his congregants. He has a passion for jazz, and would prefer whisky to the sherry he’s constantly offered (though he would never say so.)

Besides all this, Sidney wrestles with the morality and ethics of his faith, and truly believes in his calling. It’s rare to find a priest in any novel who actually understands even the rudiments of Christianity (try Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene for that), but Sidney is a good priest without being the least bit sanctimonious. He does what priests actually do — including things like supervising the building of the manger at Christmas, attending meetings, and visiting sick people — and he worries about his prayer life. James Runcie is the son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury. I see he knows the life!

Runcie’s prose is no better than workmanlike, but it was good enough to make it charming. If a cozy ecclesiastical mystery appeals, or if you enjoyed the television performance, I can definitely recommend this, and I will probably pick up the next in the series (I think he has written six of these!)

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mysteries | 10 Comments


moonglowIt took me a while to get into Michael Chabon’s new novel, but once I did, I was fully hooked. The opening chapters are rough—they move around in time, and the main character is merely called “my grandfather.” The book is structured as Michael Chabon’s record of his grandfather’s life, based on stories his grandfather told on his deathbed, mixed in with Chabon’s own recollections, research, and stories from others. (It’s not clear how much of this is artifice and how much is reality—and it doesn’t matter much to me either way. I think the structure is supposed to be profound and genre-bending, but I honestly don’t care. It’s billed as a novel, and I read it as one.)

The life at the center of the book is eventful, to put it mildly. The novel begins with the grandfather attacking his boss who has just fired him, apparently to make room in the business for Alger Hiss. Then, he’s a boy sneaking around a railyard, and then an old man, with memories of the space race. There’s also Chabon’s grandmother, an eccentric and sometimes moody storyteller, who uses cards to tell her grandson his fortune. It’s clear that these two have a complicated history, and it takes a while for the story to unwind.

I am increasingly impatient with books that play around with timelines for no clear reason, and I’m not convinced that the nonchronological timeline was necessary here. However, I found the two main characters—the grandfather and grandmother—so intriguing that I hung in there to see what made them tick. And they do prove to be fascinating, and the story of their relationship was terribly moving.

Chabon’s grandfather is a curious man and a lover of science who doesn’t mind a challenge. He wants to protect the vulnerable, but he can be violent when he’s angry. During his life, he’s an intelligence agent, a convict, an amateur engineer, and an avid model builder. He’s tender toward his daughter, but too consumed in his work. He loves his wife, no matter how hard it is.

Even more fascinating is Chabon’s grandmother, a young widow and refugee turned wife and TV host. However, she’s haunted by traumas from her past, and her eccentricities can turn troubling. She’s institutionalized for several years, and the nature of her past remains something of a mystery until the end. But I loved her for always striving to make a good life for her daughter, even if it meant leaving her behind for a while.

A lot of this book is about how the stories we know about people aren’t always the whole story. Identities shift over time, and it’s not always clear what the true essence of a person is. The book opens with Alger Hiss, the accused Soviet spy. And much of the grandfather’s story revolves around Wernher von Braun, the Nazi scientist brought to the U.S. as part of Operation Paperclip. These men were different people at different times, but were they different enough to erase the worst parts of their lives?

Chabon’s grandfather lives many different lives while remaining the same essential person. His grandmother makes even bigger changes, to the point that it’s not clear who she even is—except, perhaps, in the ways that matter. There are mysteries inside every life, and maybe it’s not important to unearth them all. But maybe, by unearthing those stories, we see strength we didn’t even know was there.

Posted in Historical Fiction, Uncategorized | 10 Comments

All the Birds in the Sky

all-the-birds-in-the-skyAs children, Patricia and Laurence were equally awkward but in different ways. Laurence wanted nothing to do with going outdoors, preferring instead to tinker with technology. He even managed to create a simple two-second time machine, which is handier than you might think. Patricia loved getting grubby outdoors, instead of staying indoors and tidy like her sister, Roberta. And it turns out that nature took an interest in Patricia—she discovered she could talk to animals, among other things.

The first half or so of this novel by Charlie Jane Anders shows how these two misfits become friends, liking each other even when they didn’t understand each other. I love the idea of bringing science fiction and fantasy together in this way, and the near-future world Anders builds has lots of potential to develop in interesting ways.

The second half of the book turns to Patricia and Laurence as young adults. Having been apart for 10 years while pursuing an education in their areas of talent, the two come together again and discover that their different talents have put them in entirely different worlds. Both worlds are pursuing solutions to the earth’s problems, but they cannot connect—and may even destroy each other. Again, an interesting idea.

This book has lots of interesting ideas, too many in fact. As entertaining as the story is at time, the book as a whole feels largely underdeveloped. It might have been better as two separate books, where the two phases of the characters’ lives would have room to breathe. As it is, significant elements get brought up and then dropped with little explanation or serious follow-up. This happens with plot elements, such as the assassin who tries to guide Patricia and Laurence when they are kids. We learn his ultimate fate, but a lot of what happens in between gets completely left out. In the second half, we get a lot of details about robots developing sentience, but that doesn’t go anywhere in the end.

The problem is even worse when it comes to emotional elements. I was especially troubled by the treatment of Patricia’s relationship with her family. They are clearly abusive, locking her in her room for days and slipping food under the door. And her sister torments the cat. It is a shocking environment, and it’s understandable why Patricia would leave. But by the latter half of the book, everything is copacetic? I mean, sure, that happens, but we never see it happening. Similarly, when Patricia and Laurence’s relationship takes a major shift, we get most of it in flashback rather than going on the journey with them.

The plot is leisurely for much of the book. In fact, although I enjoyed the pace of the first half, by the second half, I was starting to feel that it was all set up. No singular conflict or problem had emerged, other than the secrets the main characters must keep and the fact that the world is falling apart. And then it becomes ALL CONFLICT (almost) ALL THE TIME as the story races through several major showdowns between science and magic to come to a screeching halt at the end.

And now is where I note that most of these complaints only emerged after I finished the book and thought about it for a bit. I was engaged in the story all the way through, and many of these complaints were mere niggles in the back of my mind as I read on, wondering where this would all go. But when I was done, I couldn’t help but wish for the book(s) this could have been. As pleased as I am to come across fantasy novels that aren’t part of a series, I’d rather a story with so much potential for awesomeness be given the space it needs.


Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 7 Comments

A Long Way from Chicago and A Season of Gifts

long-way-from-chicagoI’m on record as believing that the Newbery committee has a thing for the Depression. I can name at least three or four books in the past decade or so set in the Depression that have won the Newbery medal. (The only other setting quite so popular is medieval England.) So several years ago, when my mother sent me the Newbery award-winning A Year Down Yonder, by Richard Peck, I was skeptical. As it turned out, I needn’t have been: the book was individual, lively, warm, and very funny.

A Long Way from Chicago (a Newbery honor book) actually precedes A Year Down Yonder. In this one, Joey (the narrator) and Mary Alice spend several summers in a row away from their parents, down in a small, rural town with their Grandma Dowdel. At first, the children are wary. Grandma is strong-minded, unconventional, and opinionated, and she prizes her privacy. She also believes in the liberal use of firearms when people infringe on that privacy — when they blow up her mailbox, for instance, or try to steal her melons. She’s not above tricking the snobby and the greedy, either. I won’t reveal the outcome of the story, but there’s an elaborate chapter that involves an eviction, a stovepipe hat, a church bazaar, and a wicked banker that had me laughing aloud and wondering how I could become a Grandma Dowdel in my old age. And the book doesn’t focus on the grimness of the Depression. Of course it touches on it, since everyone is living with the consequences of joblessness and poverty, but the real center of the book is elsewhere. In the end, Joey and Mary Alice learn not just to admire but to love their strange, reserved, oddly generous grandmother. I think I liked this one even better than A Year Down Yonder — the flavor of the whole town comes through beautifully.

season-of-giftsA Season of Gifts is good, but doesn’t quite live up to the other two. In this book, a new family — a preacher and his wife and children — move in next door to Grandma Dowdel. Since Grandma doesn’t “neighbor” and she doesn’t go to church, the family initially sees her as a potentially dangerous lunatic and stays out of her path. But inevitably, they are all drawn into her orbit: first, little Ruth Ann, who wants to be just like her, then Bob, whom she rescues from a nasty situation with town bullies, then the mother, then the father, and finally fourteen-year-old, Elvis-obsessed Phyllis. This novel doesn’t look at Grandma quite as closely as the other books, and her eccentricities aren’t shared as warm-heartedly. Still, it was enjoyable to read, and I liked spending a little more time with Grandma Dowdel.

These books are comedies. But Richard Peck does a good job of making us understand the real connection beneath the gruffness and farce. There’s a chapter at the end of A Long Way from Chicago, when Joey, on his way to serve in the second World War, travels on a troop train through Grandma’s town. He sends a telegram, letting her know he’d be coming through in the middle of the night, though they won’t stop. When they roll through, he sees a sight:

She stood at her door, large as life — larger, framed against the light from her front room. Grandma was there, watching through the watches of the night for the train to pass through. She couldn’t know what car I was in, but her hand was up, and she was waving — waving big at all the cars, hoping I’d see.

And I waved back. I waved long after the window filled with darkness and long distance.


Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Historical Fiction | 6 Comments

The Wangs vs. the World

wangs-vs-the-worldCharles Wang had the perfect American success story. He came to the U.S. from Taiwan, where his family had lived since evacuating China, and he turned his father’s small urea-manufacturing business into a major cosmetics empire. But that was before the 2008 crash. All of a sudden, he and his family had nothing, and Charles began longing for China and family property lost decades ago. So he concocts a plan to get his children back together and get them all back to China, where some private land ownership is now allowed.

The three children—Saina, Andrew, and Grace—are all old enough to have ideas of their own. Saina is a recently disgraced performance artist who’s just bought a house in rural New York. Andrew is in college and has dreams of becoming a stand-up comic. And Grace, away in boarding school, is making a name for herself as a fashion maven on Instagram. The family also includes Barbra, Charles’s second wife, a woman he met briefly in Taiwan who came back into his life after his first wife died.

This novels is a comedy, and author Jade Chang pokes gentle fun at all her characters. It’s rarely feels mean-spirited, however. And even when it does, the targeted character gets a moment of triumph to make up for it. For example, Grace seems shallow and a little ridiculous when we first meet her. When being whisked away from school by her father, she decides to pack the celebrity pictures and inspirational images from her bulletin board instead of adequate clothes. Later, however, we learn that she has genuine talent. Saina and Andrew’s talent in their fields is less clear, but the novel seems to recognize that they are still figuring themselves out.

Personally, I found the children’s stories of learning about themselves to be more compelling than Charles’s longing for China. But, as I think about it, maybe his story isn’t so different from theirs. He’s had this idea of who he is, an American success story, and that rug has been pulled out from under him. Now, he’s creating a different vision of himself as a Chinese landowner.

This is a gently comic and enjoyable book that I’m glad to have read. It’s not a book that will likely land on my own best-of-the-year list, but it was still worth my time.

Posted in Fiction | 4 Comments

The Tijuana Book of the Dead

tijuana-book-of-the-deadMy sister gave me this book. “I don’t read a lot of poetry,” she said. “I guess it doesn’t say much to me. But this poetry — this is my language.”

Luis Alberto Urrea writes novels, poems, and short stories. The Tijuana Book of the Dead is poetry, but it has a narrative flow to it. This is border poetry, though it’s interested in bridges as well as borders, and it takes us on a sort of tour of Tijuana: back alleys, canyons, the lawns and suburbs of Los Angeles, deserts, people commuting on the bus to work, people just out of prison, people waiting for miracles or jobs or taxis, people eating chili or green salsa or tomatoes or melted cheese on Wonder bread. We hear the language telling us the stories of these people and these places. Most of the poems in this collection are in English, but a few are in Spanish — I had a friend translate a couple for me, and they’re exceptionally lovely, nodding to Cuban poetry. Some are a fabulous, relaxed mixture:

Y los muchachos cling

To the cantina’s jukebox heart, sing:

We never go nowhere we never see nothing

But work: these fingers bleed every daylong day,

Aching from la joda of the harvest –


Y la muerte, esa puta que nos chifla

From the bus station balcony, from I-10,

From Imperial Ave. truck lot behind the power station,

From waterbreak delirium, from short-hoe

Genuflections down pistolbarrel fields –

Imperial Ave. truck lot behind the power station. Nice.

The imagery is sometimes lyrical, sometimes mystical, sometimes straight from the daily grind, occasionally grotesque. The voices are those of everyday people, usually of the author himself and the people around him: the vatos, as he says, the people who never thought they’d find themselves in a poem. He likes haiku, like these about Chicago:

Jackson & Harlem

I will fuck you up

Come back here motherfucker

You bout to get served

Ogden & Western

Oil change and filter —

$39 special!

Coffee and donuts

Chicago Sun-times

Killed wife, girl, in-laws —

Several hard hammer-blows —

Insulted manhood

There’s humor and tenderness in these poems, but there’s anger, too. “Definition” tells us that “Illegal Alien, adj./n.” is “A term by which/ An invading colonial force/ Vilifies/ Indigenous cultures/ By identifying them as/ An invading colonial force.” The repetition and the line breaks make the poem snarl.

I’ll close with my favorite poem. I loved this for all kinds of reasons, but two stand out: one is the idea of naming the nameless, and the other is the idea that the afterlife is a town in Mexico where the poet’s grandfather is in charge. See if you can find this book, and see what you think about it.

There is a town in Mexico

where no one ever dies, and those who have

passed on pass back through

the cottonwood square where alamos trees

are whitewashed halfway up

their trunks, and those few awkward dead

the world coughs up stop

by a bench where my grandfather sits

at a black typewriter and a stack

of oystershell colored sheets. “Name,”

he says as he rolls the page

with that ancient sound, that machine

of poetry and dreams taking its morning taste

of forever. And those inarticulate dead

who made it through mango trees, agaves spiked

a dusty jade, past snapping turtles

in the huerta’s bog, scratch their heads,

try to remember their names. Any name

will do. My grandfather, for example,

calls John the Baptist “Juanito.” Zapata

never comes to town, or he’d get a name as well.

The dead call themselves their own true names:

Honeysuckle, Hummingbird, Wind,

Coyote, Blue Deer. My grandfather types.

Once they sign the page, these few

scoop a drink from the cool stone

fountain, shade their eyes, and stare

at all those shiny

forgotten coins.



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